Christian Faithfulness In Secular Work: Clarification and Caution

I work at a forklift dealership.

No matter how meticulously I try to craft that sentence to sound cooler in small talk introductions, the reality remains: I am about as common man in the common realm as it gets.

Though I spend my workdays around the likes of turret trucks, I often spend my off-hours with the likes of Turretin. You can imagine that trying to produce a forklift term that sounds like a quintessential Reformed theologian was not the first time I contemplated how these worlds connect. The perennial question of what it looks like to be a faithful Christian in a secular workplace is immensely personal for me, as it surely is for every believer in similar life circumstances.

In seeking counsel on the topic, however, one may find that guidance can sometimes come as abstract art, painted with strokes of ambiguous Christianese. If you are anything like me, you may be initially inspired to frame your secular job as something like “kingdom” work, or workplace “ministry” that is “transforming” your employer; but the next day of ordinary service in your industry, without mention of Christ, leaves you either unclear about that framework’s tangible outworking at best, or questioning matters of your fidelity to God at worst.

My hope in writing this article is to provide some clarification to the believer struggling with what it looks like to be faithful in their secular occupation, while also cautioning against some of the language surrounding the topic, which may unintentionally cause confusion or even put believers under a new law—a covenant of work, as it were. Before proceeding, it should be noted that the term secular is used here to describe that which is common to believers and unbelievers—something that is not set apart for Christians alone.1 Secular, in this context, does not refer to that which is inherently opposed to Christianity, as the term is sometimes used in other contexts.

Clarification Through Categories

The right categorical distinctions can help clear up otherwise convoluted concepts. The same is certainly the case when studying the relationship between Christianity and culture, and specifically the present topic of how one’s faith affects one’s secular occupation. Though it does not solve all potential questions, David VanDrunen makes a distinction that I have found to be a useful lens for providing increased clarity on the matter. He distinguishes between one’s objective acts on the job and one’s subjective experience of those acts.2

In short, when specifically applied to the secular workplace, VanDrunen points out that the objective physical acts a Christian carries out on the job (along with aspects such as one’s strategies and measures of success) are ordinarily common to both believers and unbelievers. On the other hand, a Christian’s subjective motivation and attitude sets him or her apart as having a distinctly Christian experience, even in an otherwise shared environment with non-Christians. Or, to put it plainly: to an outside observer, a Christian does not generally drive, fix, or sell a forklift in a visibly different way from an unbeliever, but the Christian’s subjective experience of doing so—ultimately unto God and his glory—makes a world of difference.

This framework, of course, is filled with nuance missing in such a brief summary. For example, I recognize there may be overlap in these categories—such as in the case of one’s work environment straying beyond what would otherwise be the shared moral guardrails of natural law. These categories should not be thought of as strict black-or-white divides. Nonetheless, if you will accept my stickman outline of VanDrunen’s well drawn-out distinctions, I believe it can serve as a practical tool for fleshing out what faithfulness looks like in a secular workplace.

On the one hand, when examining an occupation’s objective physical acts, faithfulness on the job looks much the same across the board, no matter your religious beliefs. It looks like fulfilling the duties required of your position with diligence, according to your company’s initiatives, guidelines, and measures of success. One does not have to invent a uniquely Christian way of doing the job or feel pressure to over-spiritualize common tasks shared by believers and unbelievers alike. In this sense—as obvious as it may sound—faithfulness at your job just looks like doing your job and doing it well. Accordingly, many see wisdom in resisting the temptation to apply the label of  “Christian” to secular work carried out by believers (e.g., Christian forklift repair, etc.).3

On the other hand, typically when a Christian explores the question of how to be faithful on the job, they have in mind the experience of day-to-day work. Looking at subjective, experiential aspects like one’s interior motivation and perspective of purpose, there is certainly a distinctly Christian mindset and heart behind what are otherwise common tasks.

For example, the Christian is to do all things by faith unto the glory of God, in accordance with his Word, and out of love for others. The Christian is to perform these tasks as if God is their “boss’s boss” on the org chart, ultimately serving God by submitting to and serving those they work with. Certainly, many of the biblical principles of a good worker are often shared by unbelievers via natural law (e.g., working hard, working with integrity, etc.). But even so, they are not oriented to the same ultimate end of serving God to his glory, as informed by his Word.

Through this lens of the objective and subjective categories, the picture of faithfulness on the job is starting to come into focus. To an onlooker, it appears that you are doing your job according to its outward description and duties—things which are shared by believers and unbelievers alike. All the while, however, you are doing so out of the godly motivation to love your neighbors well to the glory of God.

A secular job is inherently dignified under God’s sustaining provision. As such, whatever valuable and legitimate good or service a believer provides their neighbor (within moral guardrails) is glorifying to God in itself, without the need to over-spiritualize such secular tasks. Even selling a forklift can be a meaningful, God-honoring task, without having to declare the lift sacred. Thus, may we carry out our jobs according to the duties, strategies, and measures of success that the role entails, all with the underlying motivation of honoring God by loving our neighbors well through our labors. Most of that Christianese really can boil down to doing your job and doing it with a heart for the good of others to the glory of God.

Caution in Conversation

Now, I recognize that descriptors which frame one’s job as “kingdom” work or as a “ministry” that is “redeeming” or “transforming” the workplace are often well-intended and sometimes meant to communicate many similar concepts to the summary given above. Perhaps in some cases, the difference in language is a result of other believers attempting to use broad definitions for terms that I understand more narrowly: for example, by the “kingdom of God” some may be referring to his overarching sovereignty and sustaining provisional common reign, rather than to his redemptive rule. Even if it were driven by differing definitions, however, I caution the use of this sort of language in conversations relating to secular occupations, as I believe it can cause more confusion and misunderstanding than the good that may be intended.

For one, the lack of clarity in the use of these adjectives leaves room for the distinctive purposes of secular work and the work of the institutional church to be blurred, thereby unintentionally devaluing the meaningfulness of both the common and redemptive orders.

Darryl Hart presents a parallel example of this in his book, A Secular Faith, where he highlights how blending the common civil sphere with the (seemingly) sacred often reduces Christianity to mere moral principles simply to be followed, having been ripped away from the context of the core doctrines of the faith.4 As a result, what was presented as making the state more “Christian” turns out to be the opposite of the Christian message—all law, with no connection to the good news of the person and salvation-accomplishing work of Christ in history. Though it may have sounded welcoming to Christianity on the surface, this confusion of categories ends up entirely undermining the definition and substance of the Christian faith. Not to mention, there is also a sense in which it simultaneously devalues the dignity of the common order, by (perhaps inadvertently) implying that it must become substantially religious in order to be legitimate or good.

A similar warning could be issued for “Christianizing,” “redeeming,” or “transforming” the secular workplace with the “gospel.” What does this actually look like? Is the vision merely an institutional moralizing? If so, that is certainly not the gospel or transformation by it. Or, if the vision is truly to make one’s employer an institution that confesses and proclaims the gospel of Christ, thus necessitating institutional discipline, first of all, good luck actually doing that in real life with a corporation of any substantial size. But secondly, have we not undermined the category of the institutional church or developed a new segment of the church that now not only administers the Word and sacraments, but also . . . forklifts?

Of course, I suggest the latter with jest, though the concern for the implications of blurring these categories stands. I certainly do not want to be understood as discouraging Christians from testifying to the faith when given the opportunity in the appropriate context—that is certainly commendable, biblical, and part of loving our neighbor well, including our co-workers. Likewise, this should be coupled with character and actions that align with such a witness, as well as prayer for those we work with (and perhaps prayer that occasions for conversations would take place). I do not find, however, that those principles consequently require either labeling secular work with such adjectives or describing the goal as being oriented toward a secular-cultural institution rather than people. My call is for caution in this regard—on the one hand, to guard God-glorifying yet non-churchly work as dignified under his sustaining provisional purposes, and on the other hand, to not lose the thrust of these redemptive words and the doctrines and institutional church they refer to.

On top of the potential for categorical confusion and misunderstanding, my concern is also that it may put believers under a new law, which can aptly be called a covenant of work, given the topic at hand. On a practical note, the call to “Christianize” the secular work institution could function as an exhortation for the Christian to perform a task not found in Scripture (not even by good and necessary consequence, in my finding), thereby setting up the believer for failure by commanding something that is not called for or promised in this present world. This “Christianizing” mission may make clocking-in feel more like entering a hamster wheel with an unreachable piece of cheese dangling outside of it.

But even beyond this practical sense, consider the similarities to the covenant of works, which contained an unattainable standard aside from Christ’s own fulfillment.5 Recall that Adam’s call to live obediently in his probationary period as one made in the image of God included and was connected to his being fruitful, multiplying, and exercising dominion over all the earth, particularly over every beast of the field (e.g., his priest-king duty of exercising dominion over the serpent when it was out of accord with God, his Word, and his kingdom). As such, his prelapsarian work was inherently “kingdom” work, in the strict sense. Though I readily recognize that it is not entirely straightforward how each part of this mandate continues in application after the fall. At minimum, for soteriological consistency, we must admit to the guardrail that unlike Adam, our cultural work is not what will ultimately merit glorified eschatological rest. We recognize that it is Christ who took up this work directly and fulfilled the required probationary labor on our behalf to earn what Adam failed to accomplish.

No matter how we work out recapitulations or continuities with Adam’s cultural mandate (e.g., we still labor, we still bear children, etc.), we certainly do not want to make the believer a new Adam-figure who is to usher in sabbatical glorified life through their obedient cultural labors. Properly speaking, calling our secular jobs “kingdom” work that is “transforming” and “redeeming” the institution seems to come dangerously close to doing this very thing; or, at minimum, it leaves too much room for the hearer to misunderstand it as such. We would be wise to avoid language that risks such a confusion, and instead present the dignity and call of secular work with greater clarity. We ought to use language that better conforms to the scriptural encouragement for believers to rest in Christ and his completed work, recognizing that we do not add to his perfect work by our cultural labors. Our work in this world can still be God-honoring and meaningful under his sustaining providence, without portraying it as ultimate and achieving a redemptive eschatological end.

In closing, Meredith Kline may help round this out well in his reflection on these concepts in Kingdom Prologue. After covering continuities and discontinuities of the cultural mandate after the fall, as well as warning against the theonomic mistake of collapsing the category of common grace (much like what has been outlined above, though primarily with a different secular institution in mind), he concludes by saying:

In the postlapsarian world the people of God function in both the holy-cultic and profane-cultural spheres and as they do so they are to be conscious of doing all things, whether in the holy or common spheres, as a matter of thankful obedience to God and for his glory and thus as a religious service (Col 3:17, 23). Nevertheless, this religious integration of the believer’s life as a comprehensive service of Christ does not mean that the distinction between holy and common spheres gets obliterated. On the contrary, it is precisely because of our religious commitment to obey the commandments of the Lord we love that we will honor and maintain this distinction which he has established in his covenant Word.6

Like Kline, we can heartily affirm that our secular labors, even as they are common objective acts shared with unbelievers, are dignified under God’s sustaining provision, and are to be performed by believers for the good of others and the glory of God, according to his Word. This does not force a collapse of categories; instead, maintaining such distinctions is how we are to best honor God and his Word in our work and conversations surrounding it. May we strive toward this end with clarity, avoiding language that may be prone to categorical confusion.

Notes

  1. See RSC, “Secular When It Should Be Sacred.”
  2. The summary of VanDrunen’s distinction between the objective and subjective is primarily drawn from David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 167–168; 191–192.
  3. RSC, “Of Christian Plumbers, Unions, Meat Offered To Idols, And Tent-Making.”
  4. Though the book provides several examples that highlight the dangers of blending the common civil order and the redemptive, the example that I have in mind can be found in: Darryl Hart, A Secular Faith (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 95–96.
  5. The following reflections are largely inspired by: Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 153–160, 163–164, 169–172, 201.
  6. Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 60.

©William Edison. All Rights Reserved.


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One comment

  1. Thank you, William, for a very helpful framework. As someone who is retired from 40 years in a secular occupation, 15 years as an unbeliever and 25 as a believer, my daily job didn’t change. I changed in a way that you described—I had a different perspective of the telos of my vocation and who was at the top of the organizational chart. I hope my work reflected that but I was a diligent and honest employee before my conversion. The work did not change. What a comfort we can have when we recover proper categories.

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